ANIMAL WORLD (2018) review

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Adapted – and transposed to China – from Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Han Yan’s Animal World follows Kaisi (Li Yifeng), a young man adrift: ever since his father was killed when he was 8, he’s had violent urges and visions of himself as a clown – and of the people around him as grotesque monsters. He cares for his mother who is in a coma, but neglects his girlfriend Qing (Zhou Dongyu), a nurse who refuses to give up on him. Riddled with debts after a childhood friend coaxed him into a failed real estate scheme, Kaisi is approached by Anderson (Michael Douglas), a mysterious and powerful man who offers him a chance to write off his debt, and possibly make a lot of money, by joining dozens of players on the ship Destiny. There, the players have to engage in an elaborate game of ‘rock-paper-scissors’, with very specific rules but no ban on cheating, and a dire fate for the many who lose the game, while rich men watch and take gambles of their own.

Visually, Animal World is a delight, with morbidly ornate set design aboard the ship Destiny, atmospheric red-and-gold photography, and a handful of dizzying hallucinatory action scenes that splatter color boldly across the screen and make clever use of mise-en-abyme, supported by excellent CGI. But while this is never a boring film to look at, it does have narrative issues. Most of the action scenes displayed in the trailers are indeed merely hallucinations or phantasms: granted, it’s an interesting and efficient way to peek into Kaisi’s psyche, but these scenes go on for far too long, given they have no consequences on the plot. However, one can easily understand why the need to include these almost-gratuitous set pieces was felt, as for most of its runtime, Han Yan’s film is just a series of rock-paper-scissors games; gambling is rarely a thrill on screen. Kaisi spends a lot of time calculating mathematical probabilities and second-guessing his opponents in elaborate ways, and while the director tries to keep things lively with relentless double-crosses as well as on-screen charts and flourishes, well, it’s still rock-paper-scissors and math – truly not the most irresistibly cinematographic proposition of the year.

Still, there’s an enjoyably dark tone to the proceedings, the ship Destiny and the game itself forming an on-the-nose but apt metaphor of a society that’s a playground to the rich and a cutthroat to the poor, with increasing moral dilemmas posed to those in between. Obviously the censors didn’t think this applied to China at all. Li Yifeng is a solid lead, both boyishly charming and convincingly volatile, and it’s a blast to see good old Michael Douglas ham it up with class without going overboard (pun half-intended), jolting the film back to life a few times. Zhou Dongyu gets the thankless role of long-suffering girlfriend, but she makes the most of it, bringing humanity to the role of Kaisi, which could have easily been hollow otherwise. A sequel is teased during the end credits: there enough strong material here to make a follow-up an appealing prospect, if only they can find something more gripping than rock-paper-scissors.

Long Story Short: Visually stimulating but narratively dry and repetitive, Animal World has strong material on which to expand, and quite a bit of room for improvement for the promised sequel. **1/2

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